Well scents generally. Where do they take you? How can it happen so quickly? One minute you’re walking down the street aged forty two, with …and the next moment you’re back in the school toilets aged five. Yes really, that did happen to me the other day…a wisp of scent from who knows where, that provided the same olfactory experience as the toilet cleaner used in Colerne Primary School in 1976. So, so strange..I walked back over the spot where the scent lingered and there it was again. Inhaling, I even conjured my friend Yvette who came from Cyprus and the little girl who was always in the loo because she had something wrong with her kidneys. Who I had sealed in some dark lost part of my memory for nearly forty years.
I began wondering if she was still alive and how we used to play with the toy shop in class and how all the pretend fruit was painted over with shiny paint which always cracked to reveal crumbly white plaster underneath. And the exact feel of the scratched plastic water beakers from the dinner hall on my mouth, and tepid milk in tiny glass bottles…and… you see, just from a whiff of loo cleaner.
It’s not just places and people, it’s feelings and emotions. The scent of mock orange blossom for example, just a whisper on the breeze in the park, and a wave of depressed melancholy trickles over me, the lonely despondancy of mid teens when I wandered for hours around the abandoned gardens of an old art college, desperately wishing for Something to Happen to me….preferably male! ! Excerpt from diary of the mock orange blossom era,
‘I feel like a washed out gourd, round, with nothing inside apart from hopeless wishes’
The pungent smell of Herb Robert….happy dog walks in the lanes of Witshire when I was about five or six. I love the smell of this beautiful wayside plant, and always point it out to anyone I happen to be with. No one shares my enthusiasm for the smell, but for me it is comforting and safe, a good time in my childhood.
And the strong, aromatic smell of Elecampane root cooking is unforgettable for me. Recently I even recognised the smell in a blind test among several practising herbalists who failed to identify it by scent. The only reason is because I was immediately transported to a rat infested cabin on an island off British Cloumbia, where I boiled some up for the first time to cure a cough over twenty years ago. There in a flash! And all the passionate, complex relationships that were brewing at the time too along with the Elecampane tea!
Sometimes, if the memory triggered is a very precious one, I try not to search out the smell too often. I don’t want the experience of memory to be diluted, or even sullied with another , more recent or trivial moment. Like Lilies, obviously. When my daughter Lily was born I didn’t really have a thing about them particularly. She would always spot them proudly if we were looking round a garden, but although I liked them they never had any real emotional significance for me when I passed their intoxicating scent.
Of course, now they do….around the time of Lily’s death, nearly six years ago (and that’s something I can’t fathom) we were swamped with Lilies, great bunches of them festooned our tiny home in the woods. The whole of that strange ethereal time out of time, was infused by the scent of Lilies, and now, I ration myself to smelling them only a few times a year. I buy some for her birthday and anniversary, and sometimes allow myself to sniff a Lily in passing a florist. The memories are so exquisitely precious, excruciatingly painful and also strangely filled with love and a great widening of reality; that I don’t want to reduce them to daily mundanity. It feels like a great privilege to smell a Lily
This time of year, approaching Lily’s anniversary, feels tender and raw, yet also graceful and expansive as if I am treading on gossamer with whole realms swirling around me which I can’t yet put a name to. My perceptions are in a heightened state and magic starts to shimmer at the edges of my daily life.
But it’s the foxgloves which get me every year. Not the scent, because they don’t really have a perceptible smell, but they are so bound up with her last week on earth. I always know the time is coming when they are blooming.
So much of my life is bound up with shallow, quite trivial thoughts, concerning necessary daily practicalities, but the scent of flowers is a gateway to my heart centre, like an arrow darting straight into a shining sparkle of emotion, or a slough of depression or great lake of grief. I’m so grateful for these reminders, so pleased to be stopped in the middle of my mind chattering day to feel, and remember.
Although I’m still not sure where the loo cleaner scent came from!
What memories are triggered for you by sudden scents? Home made marmalade or creosote? Seaweed or roses?